Was I in the wrong place? I arrived at 910 Bladensburg Rd. NE to see The Great Awkward Hope and found myself in front of hardware store W.S. Jenks & Son instead. Turns out I was right where I was supposed to be. Once I wandered through aisles of doorknobs, air conditioners and screws, I found a theater that seats 104 people.
How did this collaboration happen? Well, it’s your classic meet-cute at the neighborhood hardware store, except one of the characters in this romantic comedy is the neighborhood hardware store and the other is the Capital Fringe Festival.
“Fringe moved into their building when we moved into ours,” says W.S. Jenks & Son owner Jerry Siegel, who relocated the store from Brentwood in January 2015.
“We go to the hardware store a lot,” says Julianne Brienza, Capital Fringe president and CEO. “We ended up chatting.”
Both were in the midst of big organizational changes. Capital Fringe just bought its first permanent home and W.S. Jenks had begun its transition back into a retail store.
The very first iteration of W.S. Jenks opened in 1866, in what is currently Clyde’s in Chinatown. It sold wares like horseshoes and woodburning stoves. After a move to what is now Fuddrucker’s in 1962, the business sold the property in 1986, a decision Siegel now calls “stupid.”
“We sold thinking the customers would follow,” to their next location on Montana Ave. NE, he says. “We had a great showroom and no customers.”
For nearly 30 years, W.S. Jenks continued to make its money through its government, industrial, and export departments. The move to Bladensburg is the store’s bid for brick and mortar sales.
Becoming a Fringe venue brings new foot traffic to the location. “We’ve been able to get ourselves in front of 500 people, conservatively,” says Siegel. “We’ve gotten customers through this that would have taken years.”
The arrangement has been mutually beneficial. “They’re great guys,” says Brienza. “They’re just really into it.”
Siegel has plans to renovate and rent out the back room that currently houses the theater, and is currently in talks with Artist & Craftsmen Supply. Even if that comes through, he still wants W.S. Jenks to be a part of 2016’s Fringe.
“We’ve also got a rooftop that is incredible, if this room isn’t available,” he says.
Brienza already has her eyes on next year’s Fringe, and says to expect more non-traditional theater venues. “We will be going back to vacant spaces.”
Like many bars throughout the city, W.S. Jenks offers a 10-percent Fringe button discount throughout July. I should know—I bought some wall anchors after the show. I had been meaning to go to the hardware store.
Photo courtesy of Jerry Siegel